How SUs can help their faith and belief societies

Faith and belief societies play huge roles in the lives of thousands of students – from building community and friendships to spearheading social action work.

But they’re often poorly supported by their SUs, which can limit their ability to contribute to campus life.

That was one of the findings from a major research project concluded last year by Theos, the religion and society thinktank, in partnership with the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. We undertook the largest study of these societies to date, mapping their national spread and exploring their experiences.

We found that while tensions around religion or belief do sometimes arise on campus, in general they are quite rare. In fact, faith and belief societies can act as great sources of cohesion and pastoral support on campus – but only if students’ unions play a more active role in developing them.

To that end, Theos has launched a new guidance document to help students’ unions in their engagement with these societies.

Why support faith and belief societies?

Firstly, because a huge number of students are involved in faith and belief societies. There are at least 888 of them on UK campuses, with an average of 6.3 in each institution. We estimate that more than 18,000 students are members of these societies across the UK, not including many more who attend their events without formally signing up.

Secondly, because they make major positive contributions to campus life. Many societies provide a space for students to practice or learn about their religion or belief (particularly important for students from minority traditions who may not have easy access to religious institutions in their area). Others, however, are less concerned with this and simply focus on building community and celebrating a shared cultural identity. Faith and belief societies are often also hubs for social action and charitable fundraising on campus.

And most importantly, they can play an essential role in supporting students pastorally, combatting loneliness and poor mental health. In our research we met committee members who were effectively acting as informal chaplains to their fellow students. A President of a Sikh Society told us he had been deeply lonely when he arrived at university, and only found friends after he founded the society. Now he provided pastoral and spiritual support to the other members, in a university with no provision for Sikh chaplaincy:

“I didn’t know anyone who was Sikh on campus… I was really upset, I needed to find some people that were like me at least… [Now] I have people phoning me up, in the middle of the night, and they’re like, ‘This is what I’m going through today’. And they just need an ear to listen to.”

Thirdly, because many of them face challenges that can limit the contributions they make. Some of these are practical challenges that all student societies face, such as committee members feeling overwhelmed by organisational responsibilities. We found that many faith and belief societies want to engage in cross-society interfaith activities, but time pressures often prevent them from doing so.

Some societies struggle with internal divisions among their members, for example over issues of belief or practice; and some are dominated by particular sects or ethnic groups, which can mean students from outside those groups feel excluded. We also found that some societies struggle with a lack of suitable resources or spaces in their university – for example some Jewish and Islamic Societies do not have the access they need to kosher or halal food or prayer facilities.

How can students’ unions help?

Our new guidance suggests a number of steps students’ unions can take:

1) Mapping your provision

The starting point for students’ union staff should be to initiate regular ‘health check’ meetings with committee members from each faith or belief society. Find out what are the societies’ activities (current and planned), their goals, and any challenges they face. It’s also worth identifying if they have informal pastoral support structures and how these work. Bear in mind that there may be religion or belief groups meeting regularly on campus which are not formally affiliated to the students’ union; try to reach out to them and see how they can be better supported.

2) Equipping your staff

The best way to help these societies flourish is to assign a member of students’ union staff (ideally someone with a permanent role, not a sabbatical officer) a ‘religion or belief brief’. This person needs to be confident talking to students about their beliefs, practices and needs, and should receive appropriate religious literacy training. The Faith & Belief Forum provides such training for university staff, and there are also online training courses such as one offered free by FutureLearn.

3) Supporting societies

The staff member with a religion or belief brief should be responsible for building long-term relationships of trust with the societies, and for helping them develop. As well as holding the regular health check meetings with the societies, they could help them advertise their presence and any events they put on (this is particularly helpful for smaller societies).

The staff member could also organise annual (or termly) training for the societies’ committee members, focusing on skills like event planning, advertising, external speaker processes, handling internal tensions and signposting students to appropriate pastoral support. Such training can also help build bridges between different faith and belief societies.

Where students lack the resources or spaces they need to practice their religion or belief as they wish to, the students’ union should be ready to advocate on their behalf with the university.

4) Connecting societies

Students’ union staff can also take active steps to help different societies connect with each other. Try convening regular meetings between committee members of the societies, and encourage them to identify common goals and areas for interfaith collaboration on events or social action projects.

5) Generating new societies

It’s important to be aware that the existence of a particular faith or belief society doesn’t mean that all students of that tradition will feel comfortable attending it. Equally, the absence of a particular society on campus doesn’t mean that such a society is not wanted or needed. Students’ unions can play an active role in encouraging new faith and belief societies to form, for example by identifying where the gaps lie in the presence of these societies on campus, and talking to students from unrepresented religion or belief backgrounds about their needs.

The importance of engagement

The example of the Sikh Society President shows just how transformative participation in faith and belief societies can be for students. But it also shows the importance of students’ unions actively engaging with students of different religions or beliefs, to identify their needs and difficulties. Rather than taking a hands-off approach to these societies, students’ unions should see them as a potential source of cohesion, and actively invest time to help them flourish.

Simon Perfect is a researcher at Theos, the religion and society thinktank, and a Teaching Fellow at SOAS

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